The issue has been roiling for years, and made topical recently when President Obama on July 13 commuted the sentence of 46 nonviolent drug offenders who had been incarcerated in federal prisons.
But as Oliver noted, the sentencing guidelines for judges in drug cases have a real human cost. “[Mandatory minimums] require judges to punish certain crimes with a minimum number of years in prison, regardless of context,” said Oliver. “Which is a little strange, because context is important.”
In the episode, Oliver showed statistics that prison populations have quadrupled since 1980, and one in every 100 adults is locked up. This means that 2 million people are in prison. Oliver said that mandatory minimum sentencing is partly to blame for that.
Throughout the episode, he showed various case studies of people that have been affected by unfair mandatory sentences. One man was sentenced to life without parole for selling 3 ounces of methamphetamine. Another man, Weldon Angelos, was arrested for selling weed with possession of a gun back when he was 24, and he was sentenced to 55 years in prison without the possibility of parole.
Even the judge in that case didn’t feel right about giving him this sentence, given that there are less stringent sentencing guidelines for crimes that are far more severe.
“This low-level pot dealer received the exact same sentence as would an airplane-hijacking, child-raping terrorist,” Oliver said.
“Drugs have hurt people, for sure, but the mandatory minimum sentencing laws designed to stop them have done way more harm than good, particularly to certain populations,” Oliver said. “In 2010, nearly three-quarters of federal drug offenders sentenced under mandatory minimums were black or Hispanic.”
He goes on to claim that thousands of people are stuck in prison for too long only because they were arrested at a time when mandatory sentencing was in place. At federal level, the United States has reduced some minimums and increased leeway for judges in such cases.
“At least 29 states have taken steps to roll back mandatory sentences since 2000,” he noted.
Oliver called for more reform. “Just think about how annoyed you get when people who get seated after you at a restaurant get served and leave before you,” he said. “Only in this case, the food is prison food, the restaurant is prison, and dinner takes 55 f—ing years.”